Canada Undecided Over Fate of North Koreans


2004.10.01
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HONG KONG—Canada is asking for the release of 44 North Koreans seeking asylum in the Canadian embassy in Beijing, but Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said his government was concerned about safeguarding their welfare.

“There’s a procedure involved in these kinds of instances—this is not something new,” Martin told reporters in Ottawa. “The ultimate goal is the welfare of the individuals who are there and obviously we’re discussing it.”

Forty-four suspected North Korean men, women, and children scaled walls at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing in an apparent bid for asylum, some dressed as construction workers to avoid alarming security guards.

“There's a procedure involved in these kinds of instances—this is not something new. The ultimate goal is the welfare of the individuals who are there and obviously we’re discussing it.”

Hundreds of asylum-seekers from reclusive North Korea have broken into foreign embassies and consulates in China since 2002, hoping to secure passage to wealthier South Korea. This was the largest such group to have made such an attempt.

Canadian Ambassador Joseph Caron said some of the people appeared to be North Korean but whether all of them were was unclear. He added that “a few” were injured as they entered the compound

Separate freedom bid

Chinese police meanwhile released two girls from among nine suspected North Korean asylum-seekers taken into custody after being expelled from an American school in Shanghai, South Korean media reported.

The release came Thursday on "humanitarian grounds" as the two are minors. The girls are expected to be transferred to a third country next week after a week-long Chinese holiday ends. What will happen to the seven still in custody is unclear.

That asylum bid occurred Monday but wasn’t made public until Thursday.

The school intrusion happened just as afternoon classes were ending, said an official at the consulate, speaking on routine condition of anonymity. Acting according to a prearranged response plan, the school informed police and the group was removed “without incident,” the official said.

The consular official said no assurances were given about the fate of the group, though the U.S. officials have long urged Chinese authorities not to return asylum seekers to North Korea.

Hard hats and shoes

Following the break-in at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, a truck was seen entering the compound and about 10 mattresses unloaded before the ambassador came out.

Several yellow hard hats and some shoes were strewn on the ground near makeshift, iron ladders by the fence that they scaled to enter the compound. The fence stands about three meters (about 10 feet) tall.

Earlier this month, 29 asylum-seekers broke into the compound of Japan's Embassy-run school and have been slowly and quietly spirited out of the country.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan subsequently accused rights groups of aiding helping refugees break into foreign missions.

“Sometimes, people who entered China illegally are incited by these so-called human rights groups to cause trouble, to barge into the embassies and to make a big deal,” he said. “We have long opposed this type of behavior.”

Airlift in July

In July, 468 North Korean refugees who had been holed up in Vietnam were airlifted to South Korea in the biggest mass defection since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.Two smaller groups of North Korean asylum-seekers have entered the Canadian Embassy in Beijing previously.

Activists estimate that possibly as many as 100,000 North Korean refugees are camped out or in hiding, mostly in China and increasingly in Southeast Asia, after fleeing poverty and repression in the North.

Despite an agreement with Pyongyang to repatriate North Koreans who enter China illegally, Beijing has let most of those who have entered foreign diplomatic missions travel to South Korea via a third country.

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